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Taking hands-on learning to new heights

By Heidi Long
Photos courtesy of Design Build Fly

More than 80 students join together to design and develop a radio-controlled aircraft as part of the UW chapter of Design Build Fly.

A group of students standing behind small aircrafts placed on the floor

Members of Design Build Fly posing with past planes at Engineering Launch 2023, an annual event where different engineering clubs showcase their work.

A small aircraft flying in the air

A Design Build Fly plane during a test flight.

Ever wondered what keeps Guggenheim 220 bustling on Thursdays at 6:30pm? That’s when the UW chapter of Design Build Fly (DBF) hosts their general meetings! More than 80 members join together to design and develop an unmanned, electric, radio-controlled aircraft for the annual American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics DBF competition. Founded in 2004, the club draws students from more than 13 disciplines at UW to collaborate in the field of aeronautics and astronautics.

“We take pride in teaching members from scratch and continuing the culture of bringing up the next generation to maintain a strong and healthy team,” says aeronautics and astronautics undergraduate Alejandro Santana, the team’s logistics and finance lead.

Fun fact

Referred to in competitions as HuskyWorks, the team name is a nod to SkunkWorks, a team of engineers responsible for secretly developing fighter jets for the United States during World War II. Colloquially, the name is now synonymous with small teams of researchers going outside of normal channels to conduct research and construct products.

At weekly meetings, the group is divided into smaller sub teams, each focused on different aspects of the aircraft’s assembly, which allows for further exploration of students’ areas of interest. The sub teams design, manufacture and analyze individual parts of the aircraft. Most of the manufacturing takes place during the winter quarter in preparation for the competition in the spring. Members gain hands-on experience in flight testing, integration of avionics and structures, CAD design, soldering and data collection. In addition, club members can improve soft skills like teamwork and leadership.

The club embraces and upholds their motto, “Educate and Compete,” ensuring that in addition to maintaining high standards of performance, individuals are given dedicated time to expand their skill set and knowledge. While prior experience is beneficial, the leaders of UW DBF say enthusiasm and long term commitment are what makes an ideal member of the team. The leadership is committed to bridging gaps in the team’s knowledge. Each year, UW DBF holds workshops teaching students material covered in higher level courses such as aerodynamic principles, engineering statics and mechanics of materials.

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A group of students assembling aircrafts

Design Build Fly team members assembling the radio controlled aircraft for the Pilot Program, where new members learn how to fly.

Students who participate in UW DBF take away hands-on skills and knowledge, building strong foundations for future careers. With each member participating 6-9 hours per week, by the time the competition begins in April the club will have collectively contributed at least 14,400 hours to the project.

“We like showing students what their efforts translate to in the real world, something that they don’t often get to experience in a classroom setting. We get a lot of joy from that,” says mechanical engineering undergraduate Anrei Giordano, the team’s project manager.

Get involved

Whether you are an engineering undergraduate, an English major or undecided your contribution can make a difference at UW DBF. Students interested in joining the team can explore the website to stay up to date on applications, get in contact with leaders or learn more about the history of the club. Applications will reopen in winter 2024!

Originally published December 13, 2023